In Closing Arguments, Prosecution Seeks Life in Prison for Former Guatemalan National Police Official for Spanish Embassy Fire

This week, in Guatemala City, a trial court heard the final witnesses and closing arguments in the case against a high-ranking former police official, Pedro Garcia Arredondo, who is accused of crimes against humanity, murder, and attempted murder for his role in the Spanish embassy fire that killed 37 protesters, diplomats, and others on January 31, 1980, as well as the killings of two funeral protesters in the days that followed.

Arredondo was the then head of the National Police’s “Command 6,” responsible for special investigations. His trial started on October 1, 2014, and he is currently serving a sentence for his role in the forced disappearance of university student Edgar Saenz. Prosecutors are seeking a sentence amounting to 1,240 years, while the defense argues that Arredondo was not responsible either the police siege or the related fire.

The defense presented its final witness on Monday, January 12. Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz, former member of the Robin Garcia Front student association, affirmed that the students supported the indigenous campesino protesters. He also testified about the context of repression at the time in Guatemala—stating that the protesters were asking the state to investigate the gross human rights violations the army committed in their communities in the highlands. Hurtado testified that they took the “extreme measure” of an embassy occupation only because the rule of law was non-existent, and human rights advocates were repressed and harassed.

The defense also proposed to call as a witness Ana Maria Zuñiga, a former embassy employee, but after repeated failures to produce the witness to the court, and after the police were unable to locate her, the defense agreed to forgo her testimony.

Then, on the afternoon of January 12 and on January 13, the prosecution, civil parties, and defense presented closing arguments before the judges. The tribunal will officially close the case on Monday.

The Prosecution

The prosecutor asked the tribunal to declare Arredondo guilty of crimes against humanity, 39 homicides (of the 37 victims of the Spanish embassy fire and the two student protesters in the mass funeral), and two counts of attempted homicide (for the two survivors of the embassy fire). The prosecutor asked for a sentence of 1,240 years imprisonment—30 years for each of the 37 homicides of the victims who perished in the fire, 20 years for each of the two counts of attempted homicide, 50 years for the homicides of the two student protesters at the funeral, and 40 years for crimes against humanity.

Prosecutor Hilda Pineda described the embassy siege as part of a broader counterinsurgency strategy applied by the state at the time. She identified the siege as an act of state terrorism, saying that the security forces classified the victims as subversives who deserved to die and the fire was “not an accident” but had the “characteristics of an intelligence operation.” According to the prosecution, neither the state nor the victims seek revenge, but rather a sentence from a national court which can clarify the truth and enable the victims to have closure.

The prosecution reiterated key testimonial and documentary evidence to support its allegation that Arredondo was guilty for the deaths at the embassy and at the funeral.  With regard to the deaths resulting from the fire at the embassy: the defendant was head of the Special Investigations Unit of the National Police at the time of the events, was present at the embassy premises during the occupation, and was in charge of the operation coordinated by the now-defunct National Police in response to the occupation, with command authority for the resulting deaths. He complied with the orders of his superiors who ordered that the protesters “needed to get out no matter what” and “no one shall escape alive.”

The prosecution affirmed, relying on expert testimony, that in order to protect the security and lives of the protesters and the hostages, Arredondo had a duty to ignore these orders. The prosecutor also advanced, relying on various witnesses’ testimonies, including former police officials and firefighters, that Arredondo impeded and obstructed communication or mediation that could have led to an agreement for the safe release of the hostages, prevented the exit of the victims from the building, and impeded access of the Red Cross and emergency crews. Consequently, the prosecution concluded that the defendant’s actions caused the deaths of the 37 victims in the fire, as well as the attempted homicides of protester Gregorio Yujá Xona (who was kidnapped, tortured, and executed soon after) and former ambassador Maximo Cajal (who escaped the embassy and, subsequently, the country).

With regard to the killings of the two protesters at the mass funeral following the embassy occupation, the prosecution concluded that it had satisfactorily demonstrated that Arredondo coordinated the surveillance operation during the mass funeral; that, pursuant to the National Security Doctrine of the time, the police classified the student protesters as internal enemies; and that police, under Arredondo’s command, shot to death the students.

The Civil Parties

In the closing arguments for the civil parties, lawyer Lucia Xiloj, representing Sergio Vi, elaborated that the protesters were under surveillance by the National Police, and thus that their presence in the capital prior to the protest, and their efforts to seek an end to the repression in the highlands, were known by the police. She asserted that the prosecution and civil parties had demonstrated that the state’s counterinsurgency strategy of the time classified those defending their rights as subversive—leading to the security operation at the embassy that resulted in the deaths of the protesters and their hostages.

Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the second civil party in the Spanish embassy case, Rigoberta Menchu, presented her conclusions through attorney Estela Lopez, of Guatemala’s Human Rights Law Firm (Bufete de Derechos Humanos). In addition to reiterating the prosecution’s pleas, Lopez asked the court to open the case against Donaldo Alvarez Ruiz, former Interior Minister, who is currently a fugitive.

Lopez focused her closing arguments on the defendant’s responsibility for crimes against humanity. International humanitarian law provides that, where there are doubts as to whether those who occupied the embassy were civilians or militants, the state has an obligation to treat them as civilians. Lopez asserted that the trial proved that Arredondo commanded the police unit responsible for the deaths, complied with illegal orders, and acted voluntarily and with intent, despite his professional duty to protect life and physical integrity and to provide immediate assistance to people in danger.

The Defense

Representing the defendant Arredondo, Moises Galindo called on the court to avoid creating guilt where no guilt lies and to instead find those truly responsible. He criticized what he described as a political investigation spearheaded by former attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz and former Supreme Court president César Barrientos, noting the transfer of the case from the ordinary criminal justice system to the protected high risk court. He decried the prosecutor’s case for failing to identify the organizers of the occupation, who he finds ultimately responsible; the defense alleges that they immolated themselves with Molotov bombs they brought into the embassy and that the former Spanish ambassador was complicit. Galindo asserted that evidence presented suggest that the fire started “from inside” the room where the protesters were and that Arredondo did nothing to prevent them from leaving.

In his closing arguments, Galindo tried to elaborate contradictions in the prosecution’s case, in particular challenging the prosecution’s assertion that police brought in a flame-thrower and that there was ever an order that “no one shall escape alive.” He countered the prosecution’s assertion that it had demonstrated Arredondo’s individual responsibility, asserting that the prosecution had even failed to demonstrate that Arredondo was in charge of the police intervention at the time. The defense affirmed that the prosecution did not present “any evidence of Arredondo leaving or entering” the embassy and that the Detectives Corps—and not Command 6, under Arredondo’s command—was the state security entity that responded to the occupation. According to Galindo: “The police did what they had to do. They never intended to kill anyone—help them, yes, at least the hostages.”

Galindo recalled that Arredondo was already serving a 70-year sentence for the enforced disappearance of student Edgar Saenz—disparaging the court that passed that sentence as a “political tribunal where everyone applauds when the sentence is announced,” referencing the tribunal that condemned former head of state Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity in 2013.

Before closing the case, the court offered an opportunity to the civil parties and victims to present final words. Rigoberta Menchu sought to honor the memory of her father, Vicente Menchu, who died in the fire. She recalled that her father was neither a guerrilla nor a communist, and she was tired of hearing that as an excuse for his death and that of the other protesters. Sergio Vi, who also lost his father in the fire, described the case as light after years of fighting for justice. Two other victims, Rafael Gonzalez Yos and Rodolfo Anleu, who lost a brother and mother, respectively, in the fire, also came before the judges and asked for justice to be done.

The court then informed those assembled that it expected to close the hearing and pronounce a sentence on Monday, January 19, at 8:30 AM.  Arredondo will also have the opportunity to make any representation to the court on Monday as well.

Update: On  January 19, 2015, Garcia Arredondo was sentenced to 40 years in jail for murder and crimes against humanity in connection with the embassy siege.

He was given another 50 years for the killing of two students at the funeral of the victims of the embassy siege.